Passing Through Edom and the Death of Aaron

Succession in the Priesthood

“And Moses sent messengers from Kadesh unto the king of Edom” (Numbers 20:14, ASV).

Passing through Edom and the Death of Aaron

Israel was at Kadesh, where Moses just made a terrible mistake at Meribah. This Kadesh should be distinguished from Kadesh Barnea which is in the Wilderness of Paran. Kadesh is in the Wilderness of Zin and probably near the location of the modern city of Petra in Jordan.1


Israel was now ready to move. Since it was the 40th year of their wandering, it was time to get the nation staged and ready to end their long journey. Moses wanted to have a clear path to the Promised Land and saw the best passage would be through the country of Edom. The path he wanted to use was the King’s Highway (Numbers 20:17). The historical record indicates this road was widely used in ancient times as a major commercial and military route.

“King’s Highway — Major transportation route east of the Jordan River. Literally ‘the way of the king,’ this highway has been in continuous use for over 3,000 years. It runs from Damascus to the Gulf of Aqaba and is the main caravan route for the Transjordan. It is mentioned in Numbers 20:17 and Numbers 21:22 as the route Moses and the Israelites would take through Edom and the land of Sihon. The Romans upgraded it during the reign of Trajan and renamed it Trajan’s Road. The Arabic name is Tariq es‑Sultani, which also means the way of the sultan or king.”2

(2) Holman’s Bible Dictionary,‑highway.html

Moses sent messengers to the king of Edom, which adjoined Kadesh, seeking permission for the Israelites to move through his land. We read the account in Numbers 20:14‑21.

“And Moses sent messengers from Kadesh unto the king of Edom, Thus saith thy brother Israel, Thou knowest all the travail that hath befallen us: how our fathers went down into Egypt, and we dwelt in Egypt a long time; and the Egyptians dealt ill with us, and our fathers: and when we cried unto Jehovah, he heard our voice, and sent an angel, and brought us forth out of Egypt: and, behold, we are in Kadesh, a city in the uttermost of thy border. Let us pass, I pray thee, through thy land: we will not pass through field or through vineyard, neither will we drink of the water of the wells; we will go along the king’s highway; we will not turn aside to the right hand nor to the left, until we have passed thy border. And Edom said unto him, Thou shalt not pass through me, lest I come out with the sword against thee. And the children of Israel said unto him, We will go up by the highway; and if we drink of thy water, I and my cattle, then will I give the price thereof: let me only, without doing anything else, pass through on my feet. And he said, Thou shalt not pass through. And Edom came out against him with much people, and with a strong hand. Thus Edom refused to give Israel passage through his border: wherefore Israel turned away from him.”

Moses’ appeal touches on several items of interest. First, Moses described his people as “thy brother Israel.” This is a poignant appeal to family. Jacob, the father of Israel, was the brother of Esau. Edom is another name for Esau. “Now these are the generations of Esau (the same is Edom)” (Genesis 36:1).

Edomites, Moabites, Midianites

“The various nations inhabiting the Promised Land, whose iniquity had come to the full and who were to be dispossessed by Israel, were not related to Abraham; but the Edomites, Moabites and Midianites, who dwelt to the south and the east of the Promised Land, were of blood relationship to Israel. The Midianites were children of Abraham by Keturah. The Moabites were children of Lot, Abraham’s nephew. The Edomites were the descendants of Esau, Jacob’s brother. The Divine Program was that Israel might leave these related peoples unmolested, except when they made the attack.”3

(3) R5315

Though Jacob and Esau had a great deal of enmity for each other early in their lives, they later reconciled with great affection for each other. “Esau ran to meet him, and embraced him, and fell on his neck, and kissed him: and they wept” (Genesis 33:4).

In fact, the Israelites were commanded to have a level of respect for the Edomites! “Thou shalt not abhor an Edomite; for he is thy brother: thou shalt not abhor an Egyptian; because thou wast a sojourner in his land. The children of the third generation that are born unto them shall enter into the assembly of Jehovah” (Deuteronomy 23:7, 8).

The King of Edom should have known this personal history. But Moses wanted to press the request and added the more recent history of the people of Israel in their experiences in Egypt, including the divine hand of an angel effecting their deliverance. Additionally, Moses, anticipating a concern the Edomites probably would have, gave assurances that their passing through the land of Edom would not touch anything of value they had. Their fields, vineyards, and water supplies would be strictly avoided, with Israel not straying from the King’s Highway in the slightest.

In the subsequent negotiations, the King of Edom twice rejected the request and was not persuaded to let Israel through. Furthermore, the King of Edom came out with a great display of strength to deter Israel from passing through the land.

One might wonder why the King of Edom was so virulently opposed to letting Israel pass through their territories. We can only speculate, but the scripture says that Edom and the other tribes of Canaan were terrified of Israel. “The peoples have heard, they tremble: Pangs have taken hold on the inhabitants of Philistia. Then were the chiefs of Edom dismayed; The mighty men of Moab, trembling taketh hold upon them: All the inhabitants of Canaan are melted away. Terror and dread falleth upon them” (Exodus 15:14‑16).

In this fear, they could not countenance the presence of Israel anywhere near them. Moses accepted the King’s answer and they took a route further to the east around Edom and east of Moab, the land of the children of Lot (see Judges 11:18).

“And they journeyed from Kadesh: and the children of Israel, even the whole congregation, came unto mount Hor” (Numbers 21:22). Regarding the location of Mount Hor, one reference notes: “In the Bible, the first Mount Hor, the site of Aaron’s death, is “near the border of Edom,” however, its exact location today is the subject of great debate. According to the Romano‑Jewish historian Titus Flavius Josephus (37‑100 AD), the twin‑peaked mountain Jebel Nebi Harun, which means “Mountain of the Prophet Aaron” in Arabic, is the true location. At a height of 4780 feet, the mountain is situated in the Edomite Mountains in Petra, Jordan. Also known as Jabal Harun, a shrine has been built at the summit, which claims to cover the grave of Aaron.”4

(4)‑blog /mount‑hor‑the‑importance‑of‑mountains‑in‑the‑bible

It is here at Mount Hor that High Priest Aaron’s life came to an end. This occurred by Jehovah’s direction. “Jehovah spake unto Moses and Aaron in mount Hor, by the border of the land of Edom, saying, Aaron shall be gathered unto his people; for he shall not enter into the land which I have given unto the children of Israel, because ye rebelled against my word at the waters of Meribah. Take Aaron and Eleazar5 his son, and bring them up unto mount Hor; and strip Aaron of his garments, and put them upon Eleazar his son: and Aaron shall be gathered unto his people, and shall die there. And Moses did as Jehovah commanded: and they went up into mount Hor in the sight of all the congregation. And Moses stripped Aaron of his garments, and put them upon Eleazar his son; and Aaron died there on the top of the mount: and Moses and Eleazar came down from the mount. And when all the congregation saw that Aaron was dead, they wept for Aaron thirty days, even all the house of Israel” (Numbers 20:23‑29).

(5) Nadab and Abihu, two of Aaron’s other sons, died while violating the holiness of the sanctuary and Ithamar, though still alive, is not mentioned here.

There are a number of interesting things to note in this account.

● First of all, Jehovah gives the reason for denying Aaron entry into the Promised Land. He said, “because ye rebelled against my word at the waters of Meribah.” We might wonder at Aaron’s culpability in this because it was Moses who struck the rock instead of speaking to it. But a close examination of the account shows that Aaron was fully involved in the action. Moses and Aaron were together at the time, showing a united front before the people.

And Moses said, “shall we bring you forth water out of this rock?” (Numbers 20:10, 11). So, we see clearly Aaron’s participation in the sin through his support of Moses.

● Secondly, the succession of the office of High Priest was dramatically demonstrated. Moses was told to “strip” the high priestly garments off Aaron and put them on Eleazar, Aaron’s oldest son. While it is not included in divine writ, we surmise that at some point Eleazar went through the prescribed installation process for a new High Priest (Exodus 29).

The account of Aaron’s death is supplemented in Numbers 33:38, 39. “And Aaron the priest went up into mount Hor at the commandment of Jehovah, and died there, in the fortieth year after the children of Israel were come out of the land of Egypt, in the fifth month, on the first day of the month. And Aaron was a hundred and twenty and three years old when he died in mount Hor.”

Aaron’s age at his death was 123 years old, three years older than Moses. While Aaron’s lapses of faith are recounted in the Bible narrative, he generally seems to have been quite faithful as Israel’s first high priest. He is described very positively in Psalm 106:16: “They envied Moses also in the camp, And Aaron the saint of Jehovah.”

The dating of his death is quite specific, first day of the fifth month of the fortieth year. Only eight months remained until the march into the Promised Land. A lot happens in those last eight months!

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